AKRON There was a definite irony to it all.
As the University of Akron introduced new men’s basketball coach John Groce, his introductory press conference took place in the university’s student union building on the same spot where former head coach Keith Dambrot sat just a few months earlier during media day for the 2016-17 season and talked about his long-term vision for the program and for helping secure a new or renovated arena for the Zips.
It was also ironic because Groce himself has been in Akron before representing one of the Zips’ biggest rivals, the Ohio Bobcats, whom he coached from 2009-12.
As he took his place with the Zips, Groce gave a nod to Dambrot as well as the other coaches and players who went before him at UA.
“We want to build on that great recent success that previous coaches and players have done such a great job — as I said earlier — of laying that foundation,” Groce said.
Prior to Groce’s introduction to fans, media, boosters and staff members, university president Matthew Wilson explained what UA was seeking in its new coach.
“We wanted to get someone who had that experience (at the Division I level), who had the appetite for success and excellence, a proven track record in the regular season, accomplishments in the postseason, as well,” Wilson said.
To that end, Groce brings a solid resume despite being fired by the University of Illinois earlier this year after compiling a 95-75 record in five seasons. He’s led his teams to 19 postseason appearances, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2012 with Ohio that included an upset of Michigan, a fact UA athletic director Larry Williams alluded to in his introductory remarks.
Williams spoke before Groce took the stage and pointed to the new coach’s answers during the interview process, which was coordinated by executive search firm DHR International, as one of the reasons Groce stood out.
“John’s responses to those queries about character were absolutely stellar,” Williams said. “He recognizes that it’s that character in which you build all of your skills that will allow and dictate how successful you will be — how impactful you will be as a member of society.”
In laying out the case for Groce, Williams also pointed to his coaching pedigree, having worked for coaches such as current Boston Celtics and former Butler coach Brad Stevens, University of Arizona head coach Sean Miller and Ohio State head coach Thad Matta.
With his wife and mother both in attendance, Groce spoke at length about his plans for the Zips, including the fact that several players, including guards Tavian Dunn-Martin, Antino Jackson, Noah Robotham and Josh Williams, have all announced plans to transfer or at least consider the possibility of leaving Akron.
Admitting that “transition is hard for everyone,” Groce thanked the players who did attend the press conference and spoke of meeting with them the previous day. Jackson, a Houston native, was in attendance and said his decision and quasi-recruitment for next season remains open. Add in the loss of senior starters Isaiah Johnson and Kwan Cheatham and it’s clear the new coaching staff will have much work to do in order to build a team capable of extending the program’s streak of 12 straight 21-win seasons.
One point on which Groce was clear is the way he wants his team to play.
“We want to attack. We want to be aggressive. We want to attack in every single thing we do. We want to play with great speed and pace offensively and great spacing. We pick-and-roll a lot. Player development will be a big part of this,” he said. “Defensively, we play man-to-man, mostly. I told (the players) yesterday we will sprinkle a little bit of zone in here and there. We will put you under duress when you’re trying to inbound the ball … those things will probably stay the same.”
With so many factors in play and a degree of uncertainty still involved when it comes to what the roster will look like next season, it’s tough to know if the initial burst of excitement surrounding the press conference and a meet-and-greet event later the same day will develop into a winning blend for the Zips, but as Groce, Williams, Wilson and UA mascot Zippy smiled and held up a no. 1 Akron jersey, it was clear that a new era had begun for Akron basketball.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB